The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake spanning 15 miles by 33 miles with some areas reaching depths of up to 50 feet. It resides within Riverside and Imperial Counties in the lowest elevations of the Colorado Desert with its surface at 234 feet below sea level. The presence of water in this part of the desert has fluctuated for hundreds of years. At one time the ancient Lake Cahuilla covered the current Salton Sea region in a body of water 110 miles long by 31 miles wide and rising 39 feet above sea level, shown in the above video (by The Redlands Institute). Throughout its history, the Salton Sea has always exhibited natural beauty, extremes and balance. And over the last few decades, this balance has been disrupted resulting in a crisis effecting the lives that depend on it.
The recurring sea was recreated in 1905 when a series of dikes on the Colorado River broke near Yuma, letting go the free flowing waters of the powerful river for two years. This created the largest inland body of water in the state. Since then, it has been fed by the New, Alamo, and Whitewater Rivers; as well as a large amount of agricultural runoff. During the 1940’s-1970s, it also became a thriving resort area with more visitors than Yosemite National Park. It had regal hotels, thriving marinas, luxurious yacht clubs, businesses, tourist attractions and till this day stunningly beautiful vistas.
In the last 115 years, it has provided invaluable habitat for an entire desert ecosystem comprised of fish, birds, reptiles, mammals, amphibians, invertebrates, aquatic and desert plants, and humans. With over 90 percent of California’s original wetlands gone, the Salton Sea has become one of the most important nesting sites and stopovers for over 400 bird species along the Pacific Flyway. In some years, as many as 95 percent of the North American population of Eared Grebes, 90 percent of American White Pelicans, 50 percent of Ruddy Ducks and 40 percent of endangered Yuma Clapper Rails use the sea. All of these species are of concern at either regional, continental or global scales. With its marine, freshwater, desert, wetland and agricultural habitats, the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge provides habitat for hundreds of birds and wetland species, including several that have been listed as endangered or sensitive by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In more recent years, this irreplaceable body of water has come across a number of extreme challenges. First the inflows of fresh water have decreased, with diversions to other parts of California. Second, with the vital flow of runoff water from agricultural zones surrounding the area, significant amounts of nutrients, salt and harmful chemicals (selenium, cadmium, and arsenic) have flowed into the sea. These chemicals remain neutral while on the sea bottom. In recent years receding shorelines have exposed wide areas of seabed and have enabled toxic, very fine, “PM-10” dust to become airborne. The region already faces a very high number of cases of respiratory illnesses. If water levels continue to decline, local officials expect about a 30% increase of symptoms throughout the Imperial Valley area, and possibly in other regions of Southern California, Arizona and Mexico. Less water would put a large agricultural zone, which produces 80 percent of the nation’s winter vegetables, at risk of contamination. Less water would rapidly increase salinity levels leading to severe fish die-offs negatively impacting global bird populations and ultimately an entire ecosystem. Another California wetland would be destroyed, this time by inaction.
With challenges come opportunities for growth and success and the Salton Sea has all the potential to be one of California’s biggest success stories. Public health, environmental health, national food supply, renewable energy resources, global ecosystems, economic opportunity, natural wilderness; too much is on the line for us to continue to sit, study and watch our backyard become dust. Together we can discover, learn, and act for restoration in order to Save Our Sea!